McCain and ’08

If John McCain runs strongly for the Republican presidential nomination in 2008 and the Democrats also find a genuine reformer, then we could be poised for one of those periodical reform moments that I described in The New Progressive Era. In years like 1912 (and to a lesser extent, 1974-6), Americans have supported reforms in the public interest or for the common good.

By the way, there is nothing wrong with sticking up for your own interests or those of your group. In fact, we need disadvantaged people to advocate on their own behalf. However, democracy tends to neglect goods that really are in everyone’s interests, because such goods are not especially important to any particular group. Public goods don’t have PACs. Examples include a balanced budget, competitive elections and high turnout, freedom of information, and the rule of law. Fortunately, when American governments do serious damage to these goods over many years, reform movements sometimes arise that emphasize changes in the political process to promote good government and democracy.

Although John McCain has some beliefs and commitments with which I personally disagree, he stands for a robust version of procedural reform, including tighter regulation of campaign finance, more fiscal responsibility, tax simplification, federalism, and less “corporate welfare.” If he is smart, McCain can tie his version of reform to genuine conservative values while appealing to diverse Americans with arguments about the public interest.

Ideally, a major Democratic candidate would vie with McCain for the reform mantle, but with a slightly more “progressive” twist. While fiscal responsibility and federalism do serve the common good, a Democratic reformer could put more emphasis on deliberate efforts to empower ordinary people politically. In fact, the full list of needed procedural reforms is quite long, and it would be great if both campaigns scrambled to claim them:

  • campaign finance reform
  • non-partisan redistricting
  • tax simplification
  • deep cuts in wasteful government programs. (Democrats, out of power and able to operate freely, should go after waste in Agriculture, Small Business, HUD, Energy, Commerce, AID, and of course Defense–agencies that are full of corporate welfare. In fact, they might propose terminating at least one domestic federal agency.)
  • radical efforts to simplify (but not weaken) the regulatory apparatus and to increase public engagement in rulemaking
  • civic education, broadly conceived
  • a decentralized, diverse, net-based alternative to PBS
  • restoration of the rule of law and civil rights after the USA Patriot Act
  • McCain is obviously the Republican reform candidate, the Teddy Roosevelt of our time. It’s less clear who represents the Democrats’ strongest reformer, the Woodrow Wilson of 2008. Senator Feingold has reform credentials and enough personal integrity, but I’m not sure at this point that he has a chance for the presidential nomination. Several other potential candidates (especially governors) could develop a robust reform agenda if they started now.

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    3 Responses to McCain and ’08

    1. niq says:

      He’s not yet a senator or governor, and he is from a different generation but I suspect that the answer will be Eliot Spitzer. I can’t think of another governor or governor candidate who is systemically focused on procedural reform, simplification, etc. Bill Richardson would probably be the next best example but that’s a not great comparison.

      Former governor and now Senator Evan Bayh is probably another good example. Also Baltimore Mayor Martin O’Malley, though he hasn’t yet won a state wide election, and you probably know much more about his career than I do .

    2. Progressives From Both Parties

      Peter Levine suggests that the time may be right for real political reform. Interesting idea.

    3. Jim G says:

      As an environmentalist, I’d be a happy camper to say the least if McCain became President, no matter which party. I’d switch vote for him if he was out of my party of registration. He is pro environment on a number of the most important issues, while I think he ignores the little ones – which is my cup of tea.

      But my guess is Jeb Bush will be President, and that the roll backs on environmental protections will continue another 8 years as a result after Bush, II.

      Perhaps by the end of Jeb’s 8 years in office, Florida will be under water, and the majority may finally see the light and become pro environment. (of course it’ll be too late by then.)

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